Bob Friday | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Bob Friday

Background:  

Bob Friday is the founder and chief technical officer of Cupertino-based Mist Systems, which offers wireless network products that leverage machine learning. Mist products allow enterprises' IT departments to proactively manage networks of all sizes.

The Mistake

In the early 1990s, [when] I was with a company called Metricom, I became the RF engineer, responsible for designing all the radios there. We were building big mesh networks across the country to connect laptops to the internet.

We had a major deployment in Palo Alto. Our entire company — about 50 to 100 people — was involved in this project. We were basically hanging radios across street lights to provide a 128K bit-per-second wireless service.

So I was off doing my radio thing. We had software guys doing their software thing. We were all doing our separate things.

We had been working on it a good year and a half when our marketing guy returned from Palo Alto and said, “Hey, we just went up there to try it out — and none of this stuff is working."

At first, I thought we had a software problem [and that it was] user error. So I grabbed my spectrum analyzer and went up to Palo Alto to figure out what was going on. I got a sinking feeling as I saw what the signal looked like in the real world. We were missing 15 decibels (dBs) of link budget in the system. This means the system didn’t have enough power. It’s kind of like not having enough bars on your cell phone.

That was a make-or-break event for the company.

It caused us to stop the company for four to six months to figure out where all these dBs went. I had to go back into the hardware and software and find all the dBs. Otherwise, the company was going to shut down. For us as a startup, it meant we burned through four to six months’ worth of money. It meant we had to raise more money, and it cost a major chunk of capital to fix [the problem].

Everyone on the team needs to understand the end-to-end solution.

The Lesson

The lesson learned was that everyone on the team needs to understand the end-to-end solution. When you’re in a little startup, a few crucial decisions can make or break your business.

If you don’t have everybody on board with the end-business goal, you can be cruising along, doing fine, until you get to that critical day when everything is supposed to work, and you find everyone has done their part — but the overall system doesn’t work.

Everyone was worried about their own part of the project, but no one was concerned about making sure all the pieces came together into a complete solution that would make a happy customer.

Follow Mist on Twitter at @MistSystems.

Photo courtesy of Mist Systems

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